Making drinking water from sea water has been touted as a solution for water shortage in the Middle-East and elsewhere. In southern Israel, near Ashkelon, a small pilot project has been pumping out 24 million cubic meters of fresh drinking grade water into Israel’s water system since 2005. Currently expanding its output to add another 45 million cubic meters a year, the facility is planning to produce 120 million cubic meters of fresh drinking water annually by 2013. And Gaza’s about to get its own plant too!
When the Ashkelon plant went on the grid in 2005 using groundbreaking technology, the eyes of the world were watching with great interest. In an effort to deal with the challenges facing water management today, the Ashkelon facility offered an untried but hopeful solution. By applying a reverse osmosis system that had not yet been used on such a large scale the pilot project has proven to be extraordinarily successful.
With an on-site power plant operated by natural gas, the desalination facility pumps water from a point half a mile off the coast of Israel, filters it and then removes the water from the salt by running it through specially designed membranes. The water pumped by the Ashkelon plant currently supplies approximately 5% of Israel’s fresh water demand.
The reverse osmosis technology is considered to be the most effective technique available for the desalination of water. It’s long been in the middle of a persuasion campaign by Friends of the Earth Middle East in the Dead Sea, where they believe that installing such a system would benefit the rapidly falling water level in the Dead Sea.
However, while the fresh water plant in Ashkelon may represent a sort of utopian dream, sources in Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Affairs report that without proper supervision such interference in Israel’s natural resources will in the long run incur a steep price.
The desalination process by means of reverse osmosis is done in two steps.
First, a variety of chemicals are added to the seawater to help filter the floating particles. Before the filtering process, iron, phosphorus and other minerals are added to the water to identify foreign material. Then, the water is separated from all other materials and added directly into Israel’s water supply. The excess material is then pumped back to the sea.
The excess material includes all of the foreign chemicals added in the desalination process as well as all of the excess salts left over at the end of the process and hot water.
These materials are all returned to the Mediterranean, about a half-mile off shore, near the point from which the sea water was originally pumped out.
Right now, Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Affairs seems perhaps rightfully worried. With several other desalination plants under construction on the shoreline south of Tel Aviv, we can expect major changes in the marine environment, if careful existing safety measures aren’t enforced.
With the major changes being led by business conglomerates, that see water as a valuable resource in the future, they’re not sure these business groups have the marine environment high on their list of priorities. With so much money to be made it is highly doubtful their plans take the preservation of Israel’s delicate marine environment into account.
The Ashkelon Desalination Plant offered no comment in response.
Guest author Sol Goodman is making a film about the Dead Sea.
Image of brine carried by pipe undersea by seastarenergy